Moriori Claims Settlement Bill

  • enacted
8 Summary of historical account


Moriori karāpuna (ancestors) were the waina-pono (original inhabitants) of Rēkohu, Rangihaute, Hokorereoro (South East Island), and other nearby islands (making up the Chatham Islands). They arrived sometime between 1000 and 1400 CE and all Moriori hokopapa to (are descended from) the founding ancestor Rongomaiwhenua. Moriori developed an egalitarian society where there was little differentiation of rank, and warfare and killing were outlawed. Moriori lived undisturbed for many centuries until their first contact with Pākehā, in 1791.


In late 1835, about 900 people of 2 Māori imi (tribes) sailed on a British ship to Rēkohu after hearing of the islands’ attractiveness for settlement and believing Moriori would offer little resistance. The newcomers were welcomed and fed by Moriori in accordance with tikane Moriori (Moriori custom). The newcomers soon began to walk the land. Some Moriori wanted to resist the invaders, but the elders Torea and Tapata urged the people to obey Nunuku’s law of peace, arguing that to violate it would be contrary to their ancient beliefs and customs. Upon returning to their villages they were attacked, and many were killed. Māori accounts put the number of Moriori killed in 1835–36 at around 300, or about one-sixth of the population. Those Moriori who survived the invasion were enslaved and forced to do manual labour. Slavery was foreign to and totally at odds with tikane Moriori.


In 1842, Rēkohu and the surrounding islands were annexed to New Zealand, as the Chatham Islands. The Crown took no action before the late 1850s to alleviate the conditions of Moriori enslavement. Moriori sent letters and petitions to the Crown detailing their plight, including the names of those killed in the invasion and those who had subsequently died of despair. In 1862, Moriori wrote an extensive petition to the Crown seeking recognition of their ancient land rights and claiming the protection of the Crown and English law. In an 1862 letter, Moriori stated that they continued to be enslaved by Māori. In 1863, a new Resident Magistrate was appointed who set about improving some conditions for Moriori.


In June 1870, the Native Land Court sat on the Chatham Islands. At that time, the population of the Chathams comprised just under 100 Moriori and about 20 Māori, but some Māori returned to the Chatham Islands from Taranaki to conduct their case and support their claim. The Court sat for 8 days at Waitangi and heard claims over the whole of Rēkohu as just 5 blocks, as well as claims to Hokorereoro (South East Island) and Rangihaute (Pitt Island). The Court, applying its own understanding of “Native customs”, gave particular weight to pre-1840 conquest, where it was accompanied by subsequent occupation.


The Court awarded more than 97% of the land to the recently arrived Māori and less than 3% to Moriori. Tikane Moriori did not recognise conquest as a means of gaining land rights. Moriori arguments focused on holding rights in accordance with tikane, in particular through ancestral occupation and adherence to their own ancient law of peace. Although under Moriori customary tenure land was held communally, Crown title was awarded to individuals. As a result of being left virtually landless, many Moriori who had survived the enslavement were forced to abandon Rēkohu.


By 1901, the Moriori population on Rēkohu had collapsed from a pre-contact population of at least 2,000 to only 31 (out of a total Chatham Islands population of 418 comprising Moriori, Māori, and Europeans). At the turn of the century, several prominent Moriori elders died. With the loss of this generation, none remained who had first-hand knowledge of Moriori language and traditions. Moriori awareness of their language, hokopapa, and traditions subsequently went further into decline.


In 1867, the Crown extended political representation to all Māori men who lived within 4 electoral districts. The Chatham Islands were outside all electoral districts, meaning Moriori and other Chatham Islands residents could not vote or have political representation. It was not until 1922 that legislation was enacted to correct this.


For more than 100 years, individuals and institutions (including the Colonial Museum, a Crown institution) collected and exchanged kōimi t’chakat Moriori (the skeletal remains of Moriori ancestors) taken from Rēkohu and surrounding islands. Moriori assert that that removal of kōimi t’chakat Moriori violated the tchap’ (tapu) of these miheke (taonga) and eroded Moriori authority by interfering with their ability to act as tchieki (guardians) of their miheke.


In the early 20th century, prominent ethnographers wrongly portrayed Moriori as extinct and racially distinct from, and inferior to, Māori. The Crown contributed to the dissemination of this myth through the publication of the School Journal. The 1916 and 1946 editions of the School Journal taught generations of New Zealand schoolchildren that Moriori were an inferior race and had occupied New Zealand prior to the arrival of Māori and had been driven out to the Chatham Islands by the later migrants. These myths caused much damage to Moriori and still persist today.


The stories popularised and spread through the School Journal had a significant impact on many children of Moriori descent and they carried this through into adulthood. As a result of the stigma associated with persistent myths, generations have been reluctant to identify as Moriori or have not been told that they are Moriori, growing up in ignorance of their heritage. Moriori are still dealing with this legacy of loss today.


Since the late 1970s, Moriori descendants have been working to rebuild their identity and culture as a distinct people with a unique heritage. What has been achieved over the past 40 years is testament to their resilience as a people and their determination to reclaim their rightful place in the history of Rēkohu and Aotearoa New Zealand.